Stepping off the boat in the Grey Havens
Before we begin, I have a couple of prejudices that should, I think, rightly skew how you read my review. I haven’t actually read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance. I can’t tell you if certain places or units were in the books; the only Tolkien I’m familiar with is The Hobbit and what filtered into Peter Jackson’s movies. Neither have I played the original Battle for Middle-Earth. That’s not insignificant, so those of you wanting to know how the sequel has improved may have to look elsewhere.
What I can do is tell you how the game rates on its own merits. Just on the basis of its story campaigns, Battle for Middle-Earth II is an extremely solid real-time strategy game. It also happens to offer things like multiplayer, CPU skirmishes and a grand strategy mode, any one of which could keep you busy for months.
Second world war
You might be wondering how EA could produce a sequel to a game which featured the battle for Middle-Earth - the struggle for the One Ring and protagonists like Frodo and Aragorn. Apparently, the answer is the War in the North. While the men of the south are busy defending Rohan and Gondor, the elves and dwarves of the north are fighting their own crusades against Sauron.
The two story campaigns, Good and Evil, are played separately and consist of eight missions in the former and nine in the latter. Those numbers sound low until you discover that completing the broader objectives of a mission - say, assaulting the dwarven stronghold of Erebor - can require several intervening fights and more preparation than you’re probably used to in an RTS game. There are no missions limited to a handful of heroes here. Even if it’s not on the same scale as the Total War series, Middle-Earth II focuses on large conflicts that often involve hundreds of units at a time. It should take about 16 hours (give or take) to complete both campaigns.
If you’re still in the mood for a campaign you can turn to the War of the Ring mode, which plays like a complex version of Risk. It begins in a turn-based game where you build basic structures and units in the territories of Middle-Earth, such as farms in the Shire, or archers at Isengard. These lay the groundwork for the armies you use to conquer the continent. For variety, you can select from different combinations of factions, victory conditions, and starting locations.
When opposing sides meet you can choose to retreat, resolve the combat automatically or play through it in real-time. Auto-resolve saves some effort of course, but where the odds are close it’s safer to go into real-time. It can also be a chance to participate in battles where the stakes are more personal than those of a skirmish or a linear campaign mission. The conflicts arise out of your plans, not Tolkien’s, or something geared for a quick round before dinner.
On the subject of CPU skirmishes though, they’re currently my favourite way to play the game. I can launch one in a hurry and pick from a host of maps based on famous sites like Minas Tirith, the Dead Marshes and Mount Doom. There’s no worry about preserving units for future battles, or finding enough players with stable Internet connections. I can set my own rules and practice tactics to my heart’s content.
My router’s firewall made it difficult to test multiplayer, but when others could connect properly with me the game seemed to perform well, and there was a good player population in the lobbies. Interestingly, EA allows you to play War of the Ring online as well as skirmishes. The audience for this must be limited however because the duration of a small War session could kill an entire evening.
In terms of brute gameplay mechanics, something pleasing is the nod given to authentic medieval warfare. It’s not a simulation by any means, but the land warfare is much more plausible than what you’ll see in Warcraft or Age of Empires. Cavalry can cut through footsoldiers like butter and siege weapons are as dangerous to your own forces as they are to the enemy. Meanwhile, the game not only organizes groups into logical formations automatically (mounted units in the front and sides, archers in the rear, etc.), you can adjust the length and width of static formations, which is perfect if you need troops to guard a narrow corridor.
For a title with a mainstream audience the AI can startlingly aggressive. At Medium it seems to attack the moment it has a respectable army; on Hard I’ve been rushed before I had any defense whatsoever. Having said that, I wouldn’t try the story campaigns below Medium, as they stack the odds in the player’s favour. It’s in the other modes that you might need to be keep your ego in check and set difficulty a notch below your normal comfort level.
EA’s customization trend continues with the Create-a-Hero feature. Using assorted parts, stats, archetypes and abilities you can produce characters to recruit in the game’s single-player modes, and multiplayer modes, where hosts allow it. It should be noted that player heroes don’t have access to all of the powers available to premade heroes, but it’s nevertheless satisfying to lead an army to victory with a little representation of ‘you’ in the front lines.
Creatures of shadow
If anything, the flaw with Create-a-Hero is that the range of selections for appearance is too narrow to instantly recognize a hero on the battlefield. I want my champions to be better than distinguished soldiers, I want them to be harbingers of doom.
There are greater problems with the game however. Considering the attempts at realism in combat, it’s silly that real-time base building should involve raising farms, stone walls and fortresses within seconds. While this does add a sense of scale and it isn’t out of line with the majority of RTS games, it breaks consistency that might’ve been kept had you been limited to things like tents and wooden barricades. We even see these sorts of encampments in the movies, so it’s not as if the developers would’ve had to search for inspiration.
On top of the lesser hero powers in Middle-Earth II are Good and Evil powers earned through fighting experience. These powers are extremely useful and undeniably cool, including everything from resource bonuses to summoning a Balrog, which really is doom incarnate. But here the trouble is that powers are (sometimes) so lethal that the best gameplay strategy becomes a slow crawl: engaging the enemy just often enough to gain experience, then hammering them with a final assault aided by as many of your offensive powers as you can muster. It would be nice if victory and excitement were a bit more synonymous.
Oh, and my router complications revealed that the game is desperately missing a ‘quick match’ feature in multiplayer. Finding matches manually can be a pain, one that rivals such as Warcraft III let you avoid. Such a simple feature could’ve saved frustration for hardcore gamers as well as novices, the latter of whom might already be confused by EA’s online services.
Come visit beautiful Mordor
All told though these faults are minor next to the challenges and sheer amount of content that Middle-Earth II presents. This review took longer than expected, as much because it took a while to playtest the game as because there was a lot to write about. I haven’t had much chance to say that, recently.
So it really doesn’t matter then if you know much about Lord of the Rings. If you think you’d be up for a fantasy RTS title that takes its combat halfway seriously, you owe it to yourself to at least try the demo. If you like that small taste, you can be sure that the retail version is a full course.